Royal Ascot 2013: Spirit of Sir Henry Cecil alive in global carnival
Royal meeting opens with international fanfare after scandals and bereavement
Many who arrive dressed for a wedding will in fact be preoccupied by the funeral that looms as soon as it is all over. But they must remember how Sir Henry Cecil himself found such consolation, even in extremis, in the gorgeous trappings of Royal Ascot. If those who have grieved him over the past week are now inclined to disparage hats and horses alike, as emblems of mortal vanity, then they must honour the most prolific trainer in the meeting's history by postponing those sobered perspectives that represent our only profit from bereavement. Because he would not have had it any other way.
Cecil insisted on continuity at the stable where he prepared 75 Royal Ascot winners, which has duly come up with five at lesser meetings since Thursday. His widow, who has been given a temporary licence, will bring the yard's midsummer blooms to Ascot – including a half-sister to Frankel, the champion who so sustained Cecil in his fight against cancer and reserved his defining performance for the opening race last year. Joyeuse, impressive on her debut, lines up for the Albany Stakes on Friday; other leading fancies for Warren Place include its only runner today, Tiger Cliff.
Cecil himself planned all these entries for a meeting he cherished above all others. For whether in the judicious alignment of tie, buttonhole and waistcoat, or the perfecting of his horses' sculpted muscle and shimmering coat, he always seemed to depend upon the same sensibilities.
And if his last bequest is an imperative to celebrate, rather than mourn, then the sport is hardly in a position to demur. Seldom can it have approached Ascot in such misery. Until finally united by communal grief, last week, Newmarket's professional community had been sickened by a series of scandals. Most egregious was the disgrace of Mahmood al-Zarooni, whose success with Rewilding in the Prince of Wales's Stakes here two years ago had seemed to announce a young talent to rejuvenate Sheikh Mohammed's stagnating Godolphin stable. In April, the sport was stunned by exposure of Zarooni's use of anabolic steroids, and he was promptly banned for eight years.
A top-class rider, Eddie Ahern, has since had his own career ruined by allegations of corruption. Even the sport's long-standing pin-up, Frankie Dettori, has contrived to let it down. Today he returns to the track where seven winners in one afternoon once sealed his status as a superstar, 18 days into his freelance career after ending an 18-year association with Godolphin. Dettori has mustered five winners since returning from that six-month suspension, for a failed cocaine test, and a Royal Ascot winner this week would be as precious as any of the previous 47. His former employer is anxious to see prestige restored to the Godolphin silks by Dawn Approach, making a quick reappearance after his Derby debacle.
One way or another, it is comforting that horsemen from round the world should obligingly attest to Ascot's abiding allure. The favourite for the second race today tries to become South Africa's first winner at the meeting. By then, however, the globetrotter who tops the bill for the entire week will already have run.
While his own connections decorously abjure any pretence that Animal Kingdom approaches the freakish ability of Frankel, who careered 11 lengths clear in the Queen Anne Stakes last year, they should at least be credited for campaigning him with infinitely more adventure. For a Kentucky Derby winner to contest a Breeders' Cup Mile, on grass and after a nine-month absence, was audacious enough. Emboldened by his unlucky second at Santa Anita last autumn, his owner and trainer have since disowned the notorious insularity of the American sport by sending Animal Kingdom to plunder the richest prize on the planet, in Dubai, and now to become the first post-war Kentucky Derby winner to run at Royal Ascot.
This will be his final start, before a new career at stud. That is how champion racehorses can ensure they are gone, but not forgotten. In the case of their masters, names tend to endure only in record books or memories. And who would reproach Cecil, now, for preferring the fleeting but tangible satisfactions of this dandy carnival to so slight a legacy?
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